Search Queries help us understand how Google (and other search engines) are displaying our sites to users, how often, and how successful we are at getting users to choose our result out of many thousands of others. Understanding what they mean is a useful way of gauging your site’s SEO health, and finding ways to increase your search visibility.

Once again, this guide is going to assume you’re using Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools. If you haven’t read Part 1, you may want to take a look back at getting started. Once again, I’ll start by explaining each of the areas we’re looking at. I’ll summarise in a bullet-point list of identifiers you can look for, and then add a few suggestions of what to do next if you see the warning signs.

 

Part 2: Search Queries

We’re going back to Webmaster Tools. Once you’re logged in, click the Search Queries link on the dashboard or go to Traffic -> Search Queries in the left menu.

Links to Search Queries in Webmaster Tools

The graph on the main dashboard is a smaller version of the full graph you’ll see on the Search Queries page. The blue line plotting your site’s impressions will always be higher than the red line, that shows clicks you receive from those impressions.

 

Impressions and Clicks

So what are these two statistics? An impression is when your site appears in the results of a search. If someone searches through Google for “bread”, and your bakery site appears somewhere in those results, that’s an impression.

Clicks are tracked when a user actually visits your site from those search results. Arriving at your site via any other method, even if the user clicks a link, isn’t counted here. Only clicks on your site as a result of a Google search are tracked on this page.

It’s worth noting that the information in Webmaster Tools only relates to Google’s search engine. While Google does make up the majority of search traffic (around 66% in the US), these numbers might not reflect how your site is performing in other search engines.

 

Understanding the data

There are a number of statistics we can look at to check your site’s SEO health. To get a clearer picture than the graph can provide, you can look at the table of results below it. The table breaks the data down  by the actual keywords that are being searched for. These are the latest figures, but you can click the “With change” button at the top of the results table to see how things have changed over the last 30 days.

You’ll also see the Click-Through Rate (CTR) and Average Position. Click-throughs are the percentage of users that actually click through to your site from a search result, based on how many impressions you’re getting. Your average position is where you typically appear in search results for that term.

Search Queries display in Webmaster Tools

First of all, if you see a lot of red, don’t panic. Drops in impressions or clicks are not always a sign of a problem.

Depending on popular search terms at the time, it’s quite normal for your impressions and clicks to rise when a subject is popular, and fall again once users aren’t searching for it any more. It’s important to consider the overall picture across all of the searches your site is appearing in, and the keywords that are most appropriate for your site. Don’t worry too much at this stage about very specific keywords fluctuating in the short term.

 

Click-through rates

You may notice that your click-through rate remains relatively constant (as in the image above). It’s common for your click-through rate to be low; if a user is presented with hundreds of search results, you’re not always going to get clicked! Terms that are very specific to your site, such as your company name, should be the ones with a higher click-through rate.

CTR provides a good contrast against the rising and falling of clicks or impressions, which can sometimes be dramatic for a variety of other reasons. A steady click-through rate is a good indicator that all is well.

 

Consistency is healthy

Part of your SEO strategy may be to increase your search impressions and click-throughs, of course. But as far as a quick health check is concerned, consistency is what we’re looking for. That doesn’t mean we’re looking for a flat line on the graph, however. Change is part of the normal ebb and flow of search traffic, so it’s important to put any peaks or drops into context.

If peaks occur with similar intervals, at around the same time of week or month, this is to be expected. Depending on when you post, or advertise your content (through social media, newsletters etc), you may get a regular surge of search traffic as well as direct traffic. Direct links won’t affect search traffic, but word of mouth and users talking about your site might generate additional searches and activity when you promote it.

Additionally, many internet users view Google as their portal to the internet; you’d be surprised how many people perform a search for a site that they view regularly, rather than using the URL directly. Remember the rise and fall in popularity of certain topics, too. This will all contribute to a constant fluctuation in your search data.

Looking at our graph, we can put visible drops into context by identifying the corresponding peak. As long as the values before and after these spikes are relatively consistent, this should indicate that it’s not a drop in your traffic overall. If the period between these spikes is noticeable and frequent it could be considered a “baseline”, though that may not apply to all sites (depending on the type of traffic you receive).

To get a clearer picture of these rises and drops, use the date fields (shown to the right of the image below) to extend the graph as far back as possible (3 months).

Search Queries filters in Webmaster Tools

 

Key points

Good Signs

  • Click-through rates remaining relatively constant, apart from any “hot topics” that might die down quickly.
  • Drops in search traffic (both clicks and impressions) accompanied by a preceding spike, indicating a natural ebb and flow.

Warning Signs

  • Drops in search traffic (both clicks and impressions) larger than previous peaks, with a baseline that continues to drop across an extended period.
  • Periods of extremely low traffic, or even none at all between spikes.
  • Click-through rates falling even on terms such as your company name, brand or other specific terms.

 

What to do next

Drops in search traffic can be attributed mainly to two things: content and your site’s Search Engine Optimisation (SEO).

If you’re not targeting the topics that users find interesting, you may find that interest in your site will fall for this reason. Even if your content is on a popular subject, you still need to stand out from the crowd. Making better use of keywords in your articles helps Google know that you’re relevant to a search, and include you in the results. Finding new and interesting ways to tackle the subject will help your content be more appealing to users, making them more likely to visit your site from a search. Visitors to your site by methods other than search engines (social media etc) is also used by Google to rank your page more favourably in search results, so consider promoting your content more.

Alternatively, the problem could be that your site isn’t optimised for search engines like Google to index your content as well as possible. Making SEO improvements to your site’s layout is a separate topic too large to cover here, but some of the most common mistakes include sitemap problems, improper use of headings (H1s, H2s etc), poor link structures and slow page speeds.

 

End of Part 2

Hopefully I’ve been able to give you some insight into search queries, and a few useful points to give your site a simple health check from time to time. I’ve tried to give a brief overview for the SEO novice, but if you’re looking for something more in-depth then there are plenty of great articles out there that dig deeper into SEO strategy.

In Part 3 I’m looking at the issues with page titles and meta descriptions that Google Webmaster Tools can highlight for you, what they mean and how to solve them.

If you’d like to give me any feedback about this article, even if you’d like to tell me I’m wrong about everything (I’m always open to constructive criticism!), feel free to contact me.